Washington DC Wants To Restrict America’s Greatest Contribution To Driving

Right On Red Topshot

Earlier this month, the District of Columbia voted to significantly restrict the single greatest American contribution to motoring – turning right on a red light. Local news channel WUSA9 reports that the bill still requires mayoral signing and congressional review, and even if it gets through those steps, it won’t take effect until 2025. Still, turning right on a red light has been a mainstay of American driving for decades and offers some significant advantages.

Since turning right on a red light is far from a universal experience, here’s how it works in much of America: Flick on your right indicator, come to a complete stop, ensure no signs indicate that you can’t turn right on a red light, yield to pedestrian and vehicle traffic, then proceed when safe to do so. Pretty simple, right?

Avenue Pierre Péladeau à L'angle Du Boulevard Saint Martin Ouest, Laval
Photo credit: Laurent Bélanger – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41118610

Opponents of turning right on red lights cite pedestrian safety, and they do have a point. Speaking with local news channel WTOP, councilmember Mary Cheh said that after right turns on red lights were prohibited at 100 intersections, “There were far fewer conflicts between cars and people, more cars yielding for pedestrians and generally safer conditions.” While drivers turning right focus on traffic coming from the left, pedestrians are free to cross with the light from the right, creating a path-of-travel interference.

As a Canadian, I should note that there used to be a time not too long ago when it was illegal to turn right on a red light anywhere in the Canadian province of Quebec. In 2003, traffic laws were amended to permit right turns on red lights virtually everywhere in Quebec save for on the island of Montreal and a few prohibited intersections. CTV News reports that in the decade that followed, being able to turn right on red lights led to six deaths and 30 serious injuries. Being able to turn right on a red light seems to have a human cost, but it’s just not that simple.

First off, that data set from Quebec may be skewed due to the introduction of a new driving concept. An earlier report from 2010 states that in the six years after legalizing right turns on red lights, five fatalities and 30 serious injuries occurred while vehicles were turning right on a red light. This means that from mid-way through 2009 until 2013, one death and zero serious injuries occurred while vehicles were turning right on red lights.

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Then there’s a matter of why America implemented right-turn on red permissions in the first place. See, the American government initially recommended implementing right-turn on red permission to save fuel. The Department of Energy says that turning right on red saves between 1 and 4.6 seconds of a driver’s time compared to waiting for a green light. That may seem inconsequential, but it really adds up over the millions of right turns made every day. In addition, combustion-powered vehicles get their worst fuel economy when idling — after all, if your engine’s on and you’re not moving, you’re literally getting zero mpg.

UPS knows this, so the courier company adjusts driver routes to primarily take right turns. Boston.com reports that in 2007, UPS saved 3.1 million gallons of fuel and prevented 32,000 metric tons of emissions by optimizing routes for right turns. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide and other nasty pollutants not pumped into the atmosphere thanks to turning right on red lights. While not every death due to air pollution is caused exclusively by vehicle emissions, it’s reported that more than 100,000 Americans die from air pollution every single year. It’s not just a simple open-and-shut case of saying that turning right on red lights is killing people because idling also kills people. The human cost of air pollution isn’t nearly as visible as tarps on crosswalks, and we just don’t have enough data to say which is more harmful.

[Editor’s Note: I frequently travel to Germany, where right-on-red is prohibited. It’s a bit maddening, but then, they have traffic circles instead of stop signs, plus they have unlimited-speed highways, so in the end I think it’s a wash. I’ll also note that, having driven in Washington D.C. quite a lot during my college days (I drove from Charlottesville to see a girl in Georgetown for a year or so), I know that Washington D.C. driving is horrible. It’s the only place where I literally had to beg someone to let me into a lane (they bargained with me, saying they’d do it if I gave them directions). In any case, it’s a small city, it’s a traffic-ridden city, it’s a pedestrian-laden town — I don’t really think this no-right-on-red thing is too huge of a deal in this particular place. But that’s just one person’s opinion. -DT] 

DC street
“2020.10.20 DC Street, Washington, DC USA 294 28210-Edit” by tedeytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Will DC voting to limit drivers’ ability to turn right on red lights trigger a wave of cities restricting right turns on red lights? It’s possible. The District of Columbia’s decision comes as part of Vision Zero, an initiative that started in Sweden with a goal of eliminating all traffic deaths. While many cities have taken a shining to Vision Zero, the end goal likely isn’t feasible, and Vision Zero’s fatality reduction targets have a hit-or-miss track record. Under Vision Zero principles, Sweden committed in 1998 to having fewer than 270 road fatalities in 2007. The actual number of fatalities on Swedish roads in 2007 was 471.

Being able to turn right on a red light when safe is a useful tool in reducing congestion and energy consumption. It’s also not perfect, as it does present a path conflict. However, under most circumstances, the benefits appear to outweigh the downsides. As ever, the best solution is better driver training, although given how resistant America is to that idea, it likely won’t happen any time soon.

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73 Responses

  1. I hate to wait too, but if you want to bring down pedestrian deaths, not only does right turn on red need to go away, traffic sequences need to be redesigned so pedestrians and vehicles never have the right of way to be in the same space at the same time. Idiotically, nearly every signal in Columbus, Ohio, gives pedestrians the walk light at the same time a vehicle can turn left.

    Plus, idiots conflate right turn on red and apply the same principle to 4-way stops.

  2. We should consider how much life is saved by right turn on red. Let’s do some math. Right turn on red saves 4s per stop (seems low but we’re being conservative)
    Let’s say an average driver encounters 9 right turns per day
    And an average car contains 1.67 people. There are 228,000,000 drivers in the U. S. this means that Right turn on red saves
    4s x 9 x 1.67 x228,000,000 = ~13Billion seconds per day or about 5 trillion seconds per year.
    A human life of 76 years is about 2.5 billion seconds. So right turn on red saves 2000 lives per year.

  3. Part of the fantasy world where no one has cars that people are trying to construct. Cars sitting in traffic due to poorly timed lights, etc. cause unnecessary emissions but in many places they are literally working to make city traffic slower. Politically, it tends to be the same people pushing these divergent agendas. Never mind ambulances, never mind delivery vehicles, never mind contractors, we would rather pretend that there’s no such thing as cars, no one but the people who live there ever needs to enter a city with a vehicle, and our amazon packages will just fall from the sky.

    That said, it does seem like lights tend to be set up to create conflict with pedestrians these days. I would lean on the stats for individual areas to determine whether this is an actual problem or an imaginary one used to push an agenda. I’m sure its real in some places.

    Fun facts, MA has tons of no turn on red signs…I’m not even sure I ever turned right on red before I went to college in another state. I just assumed there were signs at most intersections. HOWEVER, in MA you can turn left on red where two one way streets intersect. The law describes the situation without making reference to which way you’re turning.

    1. City traffic should be slower. Slower traffic means fewer collision deaths. Slower traffic means more incentive to travel a different way, which ironically, means less traffic and less emissions.

  4. I think DT is on the money. With a city like DC which is known to be a motoring headache, taking one variable out of the equation to help pedestrians isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Even if this does start something for dense urban areas, I doubt you’ll see a sea change throughout the country. We’re too suburbanized, where this sort of measure doesn’t make sense when there are too few people walking.

    What may make more sense are timed warning lights prohibiting turning on red during a time of day, or tied to the crosswalk lights.

  5. as a pedestrian, fuck turning right-on-red. I wish it was banned everywhere. I walk a lot and every fucking intersection is a hazard, even when I have a walk sign, because of assholes that pull up to turn right-on-red.

    1. What about stop signs, or are they not as prevalent in your day? One the one hand, I treat right on red the same as a stop sign, look both ways, but I could see some drivers only concerned with the traffic coming on the left.

  6. I can appreciate the no turn on red, but I agree with your arguments of not having it. That said, the better solution is more marked crosswalks with ped activated lighting, more round-abouts as you said, and slower urban/suburban speed limits. In other words, the cars can’t rule in spaces where cars and pedestrians normally mix.

  7. Being able to turn right on red saves less in pollution than having more people walking, biking, and taking public transit. We need to be doing a lot more to support those three things than being able to drive as quickly as possible in cities.

      1. Aha! What a rare and enlightened opinion! Those things are indeed not mutually exclusive!

        It doesn’t work politically though. We have to choose one or the other in order to create maximum division so our people can get reelected. Sure, elections are so close these days that argument doesn’t actually make any sense at all, but it’s what we’re going with.

  8. Ahh, DC. I was born in DC, spent my high school years there and travel to DC on a almost daily basis. I have found that people have gotten worse in their driving in the DMV area, with heavy speeding on any long stretch (except where there are speed cameras, which is where they came to a heavy stop to pull down from high speeds to hit the 25 mph that they need to for about .1 or .2 of a mile), people driving the wrong way down Pennsylvania Ave, SE, since they did not want to wait to go through the Branch Ave, SE intersection, pedestrians coming out of parked vehicles in the middle of intersections, traffic cones placed to force a driver doing a right turn to come out far into the left lane to avoid running into them (most of them have been knocked down by trucks, cars, etc.), parking spaces being stolen by bike lanes, people passing school busses regularly when their lights are on, times where 6 lanes merge down to 5 to 4 with no ability to know which lane is the good one to use, constant road closures when some muckety muck wants to move around DC with their motorcade, people driving on the shoulder instead of merging, people not allowing other cars in when the merge lane ends.

    I do like when I use the areas with 4 way stops, since that does slow down everyone to a normal speed in the residential areas. DC is also useful when you know that you can go up a block or two in case you missed a turn (with the exception of the areas around Georgetown and the monuments, where you will likely end up in VA before you know it) and get back on track.

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